The Sikkim government has undertaken several new policies to ensure the development of the state’s tourism sector. It is presently focusing on rural tourism to create sustainable livelihood options for rural citizens. The participation of the private sector is encouraged by the government. Alpine Tours and Travels is a private travel and tourism company that has been relentlessly working for the improvement of village tourism in various rural destinations in tourism. It has played a leading role in transforming the Yaakten village in eastern Sikkim into a successful village tourism destination. Narayan Pradhan, Managing Director, Alpine Tours and Travels spoke to BE’s Saptarshi Deb.
Q. How is the Sikkim government trying to promote rural employability through homestays?
A. The promotion of rural employability has been a fundamental task of the government with tourism being perceived as a significant tool contributing towards economic development. Recently, the focus on tourism sector has moved from mainstream tourism to a more pro-poor, sustainable form of tourism that is popularly being termed as ‘Community Based Tourism’. Pro-poor tourism policies are mostly targeted towards the state’s rural population. Community based tourism practices in Sikkim has been seen to be environmentally, socially, economically and culturally sustainable. It is a unique method through which communities are encouraged to preserve their cultural and natural heritage and simultaneously use their resources for the promotion of tourism. The benefits from this form of tourism are collectively enjoyed by the participating members of the communities.
Q. As a private entrepreneur, what sort of support have you received from the government for your homestays?
A. The state government under the leadership of Chief Minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling, has supported local entrepreneurs engaged in promotion of rural tourism. In fact, rural entrepreneurs enjoy special benefits from the state government to venture into village tourism. Envisioning the prospect of tourism in the state, the state government has laid emphasis on the promotion of village tourism in all the 166 gram panchayat units of the state. The state government in their annual financial budget reserves a certain amount for the promotion of homestays wherein potential entrepreneurs are allotted with two bedroom homestays financed by the government amounting to `12 lakh each. The Chief Minister’s Start-Up Scheme (CMSSS) is another striking initiative that is aimed to encourage the educated unemployed youth of Sikkim to initiate their own businesses wherein they can avail up to 35% of their initial investment as governmental subsidy. This scheme is applicable to tourism related services such as construction of homestays, operation of tourist taxis, hotels, restaurants, cottage industries, and so on.
Coming back to our pilot eco-tourism project in Yaakten village, it is the state government which had initially sponsored eight families with two bedroom homestays and still provides the grant-in-aid for the celebration of the annual village tourism festival. As my company promotes these homestays, I must say that we get the opportunity to market our products through our participation in various travel and tourism fairs and festivals held across the state and in other states with the support of Tourism and Civil Aviation Department, Government of Sikkim.
Q. How are you trying to popularise homestays?
A. There is a wide scope for improvement in the domestic tourism sector of Sikkim. The state government has moved strongly to promote rural tourist destinations in the state. Our professional and dedicated team lays great emphasis on the marketing and promotion of village tourism destinations. In order to streamline work culture, we have formed a state level tourism development society and have engaged experienced, expert and qualified professionals from the tourism and hospitality industry. Our social and digital media team is dedicated to make online promotions of the destinations in the digital space. We also market our products and destinations through our participation in different tourism fairs such as Travel & Tourism Fair (TTF), Outbound Travel Mart, SATTE and the Bengal Travel Mart. We also participate in international events such as the World Travel Market (WTM) London and the International Travel Bourse (ITB) Berlin in association with the Tourism and Civil Aviation Department, Government of Sikkim. We also release articles on new offbeat tourist destinations in the state. Many of our articles have been widely circulated in Bengali dailies and travel magazines. We are also tied up with reputable travel companies, which provide us with B2B businesses and have also registered with online travel agents.
Q. What sort of skilling is required for a family to ensure a viable homestay? Are you into such upskilling activities?
A. The homestay concept is a form of community participation in Sikkim. The concept is growing and has received important recognition from the government. This can largely solve the dilemma that is associated with the distribution of the benefits of the state’s tourism sector and can be a potent strategy for increasing bed capacity. However, little attention had been given to the ability of homestay operators to run their businesses successfully and derive sustainable income.
We do a lot of research on the contribution of the homestay operator’s knowledge and skills in providing a seamless homestay experience. We involve resource persons from the travel and tourism fraternity, invite speakers from the hospitality sector, and conduct routine sensitisation programmes so as to impart the skills and knowledge of hospitality and also try to orient the rural entrepreneurs towards the minimum needs of the tourists. We try to give them a basic idea of homestay operations and link them to other tourism stakeholders such as tour guides, tour operators and tourist taxi drivers. These days, tourist feedback and guest review is becoming an indicator of how sustainable a tourism product is and homestays encourage feedback from the guests which also help in improvement of services and quality. The homestays need to be reflective of the needs of the guests and be flexible enough to accommodate the changing trends in the tourism sector.
Q. How are your projects helping rural home owners?
A. While the percentage of economically marginalised people in urban areas is increasing in Sikkim, there are still more in rural areas, both in terms of total numbers and in terms of proportion of the population. One key aspect of involving more rural economically marginalised people in our brand of tourism is that it helps to develop tourism enterprises where they live. Additionally, promotion of rural tourism destination and homestays has largely helped to improve the local economy. Our objective is to showcase rural life, art and craft, handloom and textiles as an asset base in the natural environment. The intention is to benefit the local community economically and socially as well as enhance the familiarity between tourists and the community for a
mutually enriching experience.
Q. What are the locations where you have homestays? Are there any new places that are in the pipeline?
A. We first started with the Yaakten village, which is located at an uphill drive of 10 km from Pakyong in east Sikkim. Pakyong is also the upcoming site for Sikkim’s first airport. Our pilot project in Yaakten Village started in 2015 after the celebration of first ever Yaakten Bojaytaar Village Eco-Tourism Festival which turned out to be very successful. We later ventured into Chochen Pheri, a tribal village dominated by the ethnic Bhutia community of Sikkim which is famed for its heritage and picturesque landscaping. Rolep is another feather to our cap. It is a riverside destination and ideal for trekking to the holy Baudha. Machong Loosing or Rangpo Khola (a riverside destination) has been one of our unique selling products. The Parakha and Teen Kharkey are the other villages where we have extensively promoted adventure tourism through activities such as rock climbing, paragliding, rappelling, and the famous Khedi trekking.
Q. What tourists can and cannot expect during their homestay?
A. A prospective tourist can naturally expect a typical rural lifestyle in a homestay located amidst bucolic environment. Homestays should not be confused with modern fully furnished accommodations which can be found in urban centres. Homestays provide very basic and minimum facilities. The guests are expected to respect the local culture, traditions and practices. Local sentiments are given immense priority in villages so as to ensure their sanctity and to safeguard the natural environment.
We have hosted many tourists who visit our home stays with the expectation that services should be available at their fingertips and are somewhat resistant to change. We respectfully acknowledge our guests as family members in our home stays wherein guests get an opportunity to learn our culture, taste our local gourmet cuisines, witness our traditional practices, interact with the community and experience a holistic and immersive village experience. On the other hand, tourists can definitely expect a clean and comfortable room with modern attached washrooms having geyser facilities, hygienic food prepared from freshly plucked organic vegetables from the farms, and courteous service from the host family.